Last week, when at a conference at Shenandoah University, I was asked to sign a copy of The Secret School. First, however, I was told a story. The book belonged to a girl, and her father, a US soldier in Afghanistan, had taken a copy with him. Via Skype, he read the book to his daughter, chapter by chapter from afar. I was touched by this account, not least by the notion that this man chose to take a book along to read to his child, when surely he is limited by what he can carry. There are all kinds of honors given to authors, and I have had my share of them, but this was a singular one. Sometimes, in the world of children’s’ books, we forget that one of the most vital things we writers do is facilitate connections, not merely between author and reader, but between parent and child, teacher and child, grandparent and child . . . And so forth. What is worth celebrating is not the author. Truly, it’s about those connections. We should never forget that.
What’s it like to start a new book? Sometimes I think it’s like a maze, one that has many entrances, many passages, and many outcomes, none known (though you think you know the entrance). The maze also has many dead ends. It certainly doesn’t have a known exit. I, the writer, poke along through this maze, now this passage, and now that, feeling my way (and I mean that feeling literarily). If it feels good, I press on to the next choice of turns. If it doesn’t feel right, I retreat and go another way. I may even have to go back and start again. From a different place. The more I go forward, however, the clearer the way forward—unless, of course, I reach another dead end and have to yet start again. Curiously enough for all the hesitations, false moves, guesses, dead ends, the goal is to make the story appear inevitable, as if it had no hesitations, false moves, guesses, or dead ends. Do you think writers always know what they are doing? Think again.
Megan of Pompano Beach wrote me and asked, “Do you incorporate real events into your writing?”
The answer is, yes and no. The about to be published Sophia’s War is full of things that really happened during the American Revolution, but the main character, Sophia Calderwood, is fictional. Yet, I tell the story as if she had a great deal to do with what happened. Hard Gold and Iron Thunder were written much the same way. True Confessions of Charlotte Doyle is a complete fiction, but I sure tried to get my facts about ships and sailing right. The Poppy books are tales about animals, but they are full of things that happened in my own family life—not that you would know it. Seer of Shadows, a ghost story, uses what I knew from my days as an amateur photographer. But the emotions and relationships I depict in my books are most often based on things out of my own experience, lived or observed. The facts—particularly for the historical fiction—comes from research. I suspect all fiction is created this way. No matter how fantastic the tale, there is some real connection to the writer.
I very much enjoy reading short stories, and marvel at their power, and their ability to create a comprehensive experience, however brief. I even edited a collection (with Carolyn Shute) that has no theme, other than quality. It’s called Best Shorts. Over the years I have written numbers of them. There are two collections of my stories, Strange Happenings, and What do Fish Have to Do with Anything? Some nine others are in thematic anthologies and I think there’s an unpublished one somewhere in my files. There is even a one-act play in a collection called Acting Out.
My regular mode of thought is novels, so I usually don’t write short stories unless I’m asked to write one. Finding them a real challenge to write, I begin by reading many, so as to reset my narrative grooves. Curiously enough, my short stories are very much more auto-biographical than my novels—or at least they are most often based on something that really happened to me. Consider “Scout’s Honor,” which appears in the anthology, When I Was Your Age. Readers find it very funny, even absurd. Yet, much of it really happened to me, including the incident in which a can of beans is opened with a hatchet. I have no plans to write more, unless I’m asked. But then again . . .
Every once in a while, an adult, upon learning what I do, asks, “Why do you write for children? Wouldn’t you have more satisfaction writing for adults?”
A couple of recent letters from kids answer that better than I can. A third-grader named Iva, wrote, “Because my class reads your books a lot we imagine Poppy as one of our classmates.” Mary Rose, upon reading Iron Thunder, wrote, “I think this book should be taught in schools and on the summer reading list. Mainly, with this amazing [sic] written book I believe everyone can be involve [sic] changing America and the world in a way that will last forever.”
The way young people connect with and become part of what I write, means that I have an audience who will take my stories and make them part of their own life stories. Perhaps the change will not be, as Mary Rose suggests “forever,” but to change one child’s life for the better, even for an hour, is a rare privilege.
One of the crucial things that drive writers, I think, is the desire to be part of what I refer to as Book Culture. This is the universe of the book; writing, reading, making, publishing, book-selling, libraries, editing, design, marketing—and you can add much more to the list, I’m sure. If you were a very young reader, as I was, you grew up amidst various aspects of this world. I suppose I could start with the picture books my mother read to us nightly when kids, to the gift of a book (always) on birthday and Christmas, the local library. I decided to become a writer when I was a teen-ager. In a diary I kept when a high school senior (1955) there are long lists of the books I was reading. But there is also the title of a play I wrote which I listed between Ibsen’s Enemy of the People and Dylan Thomas‘ Portrait of the Artist as a Young Dog, with the parenthetical note (“That’s nice to put down.”) In other words, I was placing myself among great writers. Yes, a seventeen-year-old’s fantasy, but that was the world of which I wished to be a part. So when a friend sent me The National Endowment for the Humanities “Summer Booklist for Young Readers,” updated for the first time since 1988, it was fun to see, wedged between Hans Christian Anderson’s Fairy Tales and Natalie Babbitt’s Tuck Everlasting, my book Poppy (illustrated by Brian Floca). Just as in 1955, it’s nice to be a part of that world.
On June 26th I will be at the Shenandoah University (Winchester, VA) 2012 Children’s Literature Conference. Along with other writers and illustrators we will focus on the conference theme, literature for boys. While I will take part in a couple of panel discussions, I will have a solo spot, doing what I most enjoy at conferences, reading from my work. Over the years I have delivered my share of formal speeches, but some years ago, I decided to do something more challenging, for me at least. I hired a professional theatre director and a voice teacher and asked them to work with me to put together and perform a program of readings, selections from my own writing. It’s a form of reader’s theatre, but in this case I am the only performer. I learned to adjust my writing, at times cutting and even rewriting, so as to make each episode dramatic, intense, and more suitable to an auditory experience. I learned learn how to respond to a live audience, to vary my voice, to create distinct characters, and but most of all to bring energetic life to my own words. I am not a natural performer, but for a performance to work, I need to throw myself into my words. When it is successful, it is deeply rewarding for me—as a writer. I get a response that is palpably there. As for the audience, they are entertained for an hour. We all—I hope— have a great time.
The New York Times (6/7/12) ran a long obituary about Ray Bradbury, his life, his work, and his influence as a writer, and as a person. Bradbury was a man who seems to have been an enthusiast for life, and filled his writing with that passion.
Particularly touching were the comments that followed the obituary. For the most part these remarks were from men who discovered Bradbury when they were quite young, kids really. It was not just that they were entranced with what Bradbury wrote. He turned them into life-long readers. Apparently, they were so enthralled by his ideas, his language, and his writer’s craft, that they embraced the universe idea of reading—and never forgot that it was he who gave the gift.
Many years ago I had a brief (and accidental) encounter with him—a shared taxi ride to the Miami airport. The strong impression he made, his embracing, open-hearted personality, was as striking as it was lasting, so that I could describe it in detail to one of my sons today. Fleeting as that meeting was, my memory seems to be in accord who those knew him far, far better than I. He seems to have been a wonderfully giving person, as well as a wonderfully giving writer.
Who is the first reader of my books? My wife, Linda. (I read somewhere that Madeleine L’Engle had her husband read her books to her. Now that took courage!) Sometimes Linda is willing to let me read the book to her. Patient soul. Or she reads the book on her own, and I wait nervously. She is a very tough, but good critic. Once, famously (in this house anyway), she said, “Avi, this is unreadable.” She can be generous in her praise, and over the years has had far more positive (and useful) things to say than negative (including suggestions as to how to make that unreadable book become published successfully). It does not hurt that she is a publisher and good reader in her own right. My own rule about early readers (I have a couple of friends with whom I sometimes share early drafts) is never to argue or debate. Just listen. Nine times out of ten, early readers articulate something of which I am vaguely aware, but have not pinned down. More to the point, an outside perspective is crucial to the process. Enter the editor—of which more later.
Some years ago a young student (I no longer have name or whereabouts) sent me the following “Criteria for a good book.” I believe it was a student assignment. In any case, here it is, just as it was sent (and spelled). I’ve never read a better analysis of what children’s literature is.
Criteria for a good book
- Corrict spelling
- Good paragraphs
- Understanable-maks sense and words aren’t too hard
- Beginning, muddle, end
- action (not dull)
- complete sentences
- Good characture descriptions
- Lots of details and descriptions
- Funny once in a while
- Nice size letters
- Solution to problem-any problem
- Lots of mony in it
- Hast to have letters not blank pages
- Characters have clothes on
- You know where you are without using a book mark